Competency cases move through the criminal justice system at a sluggish pace, generally because of one major hurdle: finding space at a state psychiatric facility.
Cases are held up for months – sometimes up to a year – while defendants languish untreated in county jails, an MLive investigation revealed.
The problem has gotten so bad that judges have resorted to issuing show-cause orders threatening the Center for Forensic Psychiatry with contempt of court for not admitting defendants in a timely manner, the investigation found.
The Department of Health and Human Services provided MLive with 10 such orders issued by judges between 2012 and 2016 following a Freedom of Information Act request.
But there are more. For instance, MLive was provided with an additional order by the Kalamazoo County Circuit Court.
Officials with the health department, which oversees the forensic center, said in response that they cannot conclusively determine just how many orders have been issued due to bookkeeping practices.
The problem is well known in judicial circles, according to Judge Paul Stutesman, head of the Michigan Judges Association. He said both the State Court Administrative Office and the state Legislature are examining the issue.
Kalamazoo County Circuit Court Judge Gary Giguere, who has utilized the show-cause method, said judges have been talking about lengthy wait times since around 2013.
“It’s rather disturbing,” Giguere said about the long waits. “It should be concerning to the public.”
Giguere said he heard about the show-cause procedure as a measure of last resort at judges’ meeting over the years.
“This is a way to speed up the process,” he said. “We want agencies … to follow our orders.”
It appears to work. None of the orders have yet resulted in actual show-cause hearings and the forensic center has not yet been found in contempt of court for holding up the cases.
In fact, in the cases reviewed by MLive, once a judge issued an order, the forensic center was quick to admit mentally ill defendants.
The wheels of justice move slowly for mentally ill defendants from the very start of a case.
The prosecution or defense can request a mental health evaluation soon after a defendant is charged with a crime. The defendant will then be examined by a doctor for both criminal responsibility — whether the defendant was sane at the time of the crime — and competency to stand trial.
These evaluations usually take place at the jail within a month or two.
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